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Monday, December 6, 2010

British Navy during Regency England

In Regency England, and even longer ago, boys joined the navy very young. A boy born to privilege generally became an officer, while a poor boy would not ever reach officer status. It doesn't seem fair, of course, but an officer had to be able to read and write, something generally unavailable to the poor.

For years, there was a custom of boys joining the navy while infants, and not even stepping foot aboard a ship until they were 11 or 12 and then achieving officer status quickly because they'd been serving for several years already. This practice was later abolished. After 1794 no more babes in arms could be carried on the roster. The boy had to be present to receive his pay in person. However, others actually served aboard a ship as young as nine. In 1794, the minimum age was raised to 13.

Boys generally began as an officers' servant or able seaman, and were supposed to serve at least three years "learning the ropes." Some as young as 7 had the role of "powder monkey" where they worked on a cannon crew. Because of their size and agility, they could more easily climb around on the cannons and fill them during battle. This was not a position for a boy expected to become an officer. Any way, after those three years as an officer's servant or seaman, they became a midshipman or master's mate (a slightly better-paying and more responsible position). A boy from the gentry or aristocracy would be a midshipman when he joined up. They usually served another three years in that apprentice rank before taking the examination for lieutenant. (The lieutenant's examination, interestingly enough, was introduced to the navy in 1677 by the diarist Samuel Pepys.)

What I've read indicates that where you started depended on the age at which you joined and whether you went to the naval school before being assigned to a ship. You did not buy commissions in the navy. Competence was too important to let anyone into a position of authority until they had proved they could handle the job -- the entire ship could be put in jeopardy by an idiot. So if a boy joined at the earliest age (12) and if signed onto a specific ship, he would start as a cabin boy, or Captain's gentlemen, doing jobs for the officers while he studied to pass the necessary tests to become a midshipman. Or a boy could could go to the naval school at Greenwich to do the necessary studying, ultimately being assigned as a midshipman to a specific ship when he passed the tests. The main difference between the two routes was who the family knew and whether the ship's captain (because it's the captain who makes these types of decisions) will accept someone as a cabin boy.

A boy's rise in rank depended largely on how much influence his family had (and an earl's family could have plenty). Horatio Nelson attained his first command before his twentieth birthday. He was not the only such young officer to rise that quickly. Sir William Parker, for example, joined the navy in 1793 at the age of eleven, and by 1801 became captain of his own ship, the Amazon. But his exact rank also depending on his seniority and the "rate" of ship on which he serves; there were six rates, and a first rate ship ship was entitled to six lieutenants, with the number decreasing as the ship's rate declined. On a third-rate frigate, for example, there would be three lieutenants: a First Lieutenant, a Second Lieutenant, and a Third Lieutenant, with the First Lieutenant theoretically on the verge of attaining his own command.

When they had served 6 years and were at least 20 years old ( though this was fudged often) they could take the test for lieutenant. However, they did not become a lieutenant until they had a ship. There were men in their forties with decades of service who were still midshipmen though they had passed the test for lieutenant.


catslady said...

All very fascinating. I loved the Horatio Hornblower series.

susied said...

Thanks for the interesting story. I love the Hornblower series and Master & Commander and see this practice in the show/movie.